This study, the first part of a full Honors Thesis, examines the linguistic connections between William Shakespeare and contemporary playwright David Mamet. Coupling recent advances in cultural criticism with formal, text-based analysis, the article looks at constructs of language, comparing two authors in extremely different cultures while examining new possibilities in analyzing dramatic literature. Both Shakespeare and Mamet create a power construct in their plays through language, a tactic that engages the actions of other characters and keeps the audience completely immersed in performance. The sources reveal that despite writing four hundred years apart, Shakespeare and Mamet write using the same patterns of language and create parallel dramas.
Table of Contents:
William H. Macy, in an interview on the set of the film Wag the Dog, noted writer David Mamet’s use of “iambic pentameter…the voice of the poet.” The quote evokes the memory of William Shakespeare, a man who wrote what are widely considered the most influential and important dramas in the English language using iambic pentameter. This begs the question: What other contemporary claims does Mamet have to Shakespeare’s legacy? This study builds a bridge between the four hundred years separating these two authors, combining contemporary critical theory and classical examination to uncover the links between two giants of dramatic literature. Despite opposing cultures and stark differences in social structure, Shakespeare and Mamet write with parallel themes and purposes in mind. By examining their masterpieces, Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, distinct parallels can be drawn with respect to the two authors.
Using cultural context as a basis for this study is imperative. Although Shakespeare and Mamet write in two completely separate cultures, their style and language are incredibly similar, almost intertwined at points. However, it is necessary not to investigate just new historicism and its roots, but to also examine how conventional styles of language channel through the critical field. This research is about parallel literature: As the cultural context of power and language are examined in each play, the language reveals itself as parallel. This shows that despite seemingly opposed contexts, Hamlet and Glengarry Glen Ross are influenced by congruent cultural philosophies and portray these philosophies through the same means: a shared cultural poetics.
The work of contemporary linguists helps define a merging of minds in the work of Shakespeare and Mamet. The concept begins at understanding language as a “sign…put in the place of the thing itself, the present thing…standing equally for meaning or referent” (Derrida 28). By using language to represent an intangible thought or emotion, the meaning becomes “secondary and provisional: secondary due to an original and lost presence from which the sign thus derives; provisional as concerns this final and missing presence” of an ideal meaning (Derrida 28). The question of whether or not an ideal meaning behind language exists becomes very tangible (Derrida 29). Language is a subjective fabrication to represent a common truth, but without the subjective fabrication in the first place, no ideal truth exists (Derrida 31).
The problem of the sign and the truth, of context and definition, is constantly evolving because language has to be spoken and interpreted between two or more unique individuals, and the truth becomes diluted further and further until it becomes totally subjective (Derrida 30). Language can only denote meaning through the authority of the speaker. A textual analysis with parameters of cultural linguistics in place reveals the parallel constructions in Shakespeare and Mamet’s work.
Hamlet: Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems. (Shakespeare 1.2.79)
Aaronow: Yes. I mean are you actually talking about this, or are we just…
Moss: No, we’re just…
Aaronow: We’re just “talking” about it.
Moss: We’re just speaking about it. (Pause.) As an idea. (Mamet, Glengarry 39)
Shakespeare and Mamet are inevitably linked in the English language. Through four hundred years of history, politics, and cultural philosophy, only language alone has remained relatively unchanged. Shakespeare and Mamet write, despite different cultural contexts, the same words and stories. Shakespeare is a master of language: by “[revealing] language can be power,” he allows characters an immediate source of conflict within a play (Scott 13). His construction of language and narrative organically creates and propels drama, action, and conflict (Scott 14). The same can be said of David Mamet. He “spectacularizes [sic] his stage, above all, through language... lexically as well as psychologically [shaping] his cultural poetics” (Roudané 3). This is especially apparent in Glengarry Glen Ross: “In no other Mamet play is talk so insistently about talk” (Worster 64). Language, in the work of both authors, defines the drama itself and has the ability to judge moral standards. The printed page provides the most important bond between the two authors.
The previous section outlined the sense of authority that words create in its subjective medium. If words are a voice for a single individual, then a playwright speaking through a culture would accumulate the voices of groups and factions of society. It is evident that both authors distinguish words as power, giving characters a sense of authority that they lack without the text in place. Language becomes a means of action and power for the salesmen in Glengarry. The same conclusions can be drawn of Prince Hamlet, talking himself through long-winded soliloquies about proof (Shakespeare 2.2.527) and ‘suicide’ (Shakespeare 3.1.58) to justify action, to create false power through speech. Both Mamet and Shakespeare are using language for the exact same reason: to give characters a false or feigned sense of power so that they can accomplish more than their character allows them. The outcome is not as important as the fact that the text is being used for the same purpose in both Mamet and Shakespeare’s characters.
This section observes the literary elements that shape this sense of language and power, of words as action. Rhythmic structures built into both plays not only propel the plot forward, but also help create a sense of authority through linguistic movement. Each play then centers itself around a vital pun, a paradox created from no more than words. These puns inform the soliloquies of both plays, allowing a deeper vision of the paradoxes created by the two. Literary devices in each work show more than a mere influence; rather, the plays become almost inseparable after examining the effect of the device and the structure of the plays themselves. These verbal factors show the bridge between the roads.
Rhythm and Rhyme
The iamb, a signature rhythm in English poetry, is like a broken foot (“Iamb”). Imagine the plodding of a limping man down a sidewalk, the steps movingtha-thud, tha-thud. The sound is exactly the same as the iambic form, with the first syllable lilting in the air as the second syllable drives the main syllable forward (“Iamb”). This sound, though, is not a construct of the imagination of poets worldwide, a metrical exploration of language. It is how we speak on a regular basis. Mamet explains:
In English, we speak colloquially, in iambic pentameter: “I’m going down to the store to buy the cheese,” “I told him, but he didn’t hear a word,” “I swear I’ll love you till the day I die,” “not now, not later, never. Is that clear? (Mamet, Three Uses 66).
The system of stressed and unstressed beats is a natural speech pattern that, for the dramatist, pushes speech forward and creates order out of the chaos of the world around.
Some conclusions can already be made: because the second, latent syllable is punctuated, the result of language is active; if the stress of the word comes last, then the point is to push the word forward. Reversing the pattern would be like throwing a ball without bringing the arm back first: the ball would have no momentum and would not move forward any great distance, if at all. This forward movement of rhythm shows, then, that iambic rhythm produces active language that moves forward. By using the style, the words begin to create an action that is especially helpful in keeping a plot going. By examining the use of iambic in the works of Shakespeare and Mamet, links start to form.
Scholars can agree on the fact that Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter. What remains rooted in theory is the reason for the form. At the time of Shakespeare’s first plays, the writing of English drama in blank verse was a relatively new practice (McDonald, Shakespeare and Arts 92). The logic of using pentameter was the form of the line; there cannot be a split between syllables to create balance (Wright 52). If four or six feet are in a poetic line, the result is even and lilting; it creates a singsong effect, no matter how it is divided (Wright 52). Pentameter, however, “doesn’t divide into equal halves…[and] sounds more like ordinary spoken English” (Wright 52). By using this style, Shakespeare is attempting to speak in a rhythm evident of spoken English, a construct that creates realism while moving action forward. The use of iambic pentameter creates a base rhythm that moves the plot forward without sounding unnatural to the ear.
However, Shakespeare does not consistently speak in ten-syllable form: in Shakespeare’s later plays, including Hamlet, lines are shared between characters (Wright 53), and the poetic pattern is modified through all forms of poetic variations (Wright 54). At times Shakespeare drops verse altogether and uses prose, whereas other times he begins to use couplets at the end of lines. These variations and breaks in pattern unmask the detail and context of the character; they make the world of the play appear in three dimensions.
Take this small speech from Hamlet:
Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good-mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief
That can denote me truly. These indeed ‘seem,’
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show –
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (Shakespeare 1.2.76)
Within this one speech are a number of variations on the typical blank verse form. Shakespeare starts by creating a double spondee, or the stressing of both syllables in the foot (Wright 56), pointedly marking Hamlet’s anger at his mother’s questioning of his grief; he then returns to iambic form to show that his speech is not over (and to give way to Hamlet’s subconscious search to understand his father’s death). The next line starts off in form, but gives way to a pyrrhic foot (two unstressed syllables in the same foot) (Wright 56) and an extra syllable in “good-mother” (Shakespeare), both a way for Hamlet to refer to the Queen without interrupting rhythm but also a possible hesitation on Hamlet’s part, reflecting his contempt for his mother’s hasty marriage. In the next lines, the rhythm stays intact, but slowly changes forms as it moves, with the iambic style pushing the words forward while Shakespeare maneuvers his stressed and unstressed syllables to point out words like “visage,” “forms,” “moods,” and “shows,” all connected to the opening word of the speech, “seems” (Shakespeare).
In the middle of the seventh line, the thought ends, and when Hamlet speaks again, the iambic form falls flat. If the whole speech is spoken in blank verse, it does not evenly follow form. The end of the seventh line, “these indeed ‘seem,’” starts with another pyrrhic foot to place emphasis on the word “seem” (Shakespeare). By the end, Hamlet is speaking in fairly crudely rhymed couplets that stand out from the rest of the speech. By doing so, Shakespeare shows that Hamlet is not speaking in the same frame of mind as those around him; in the happiness and celebration of the new king’s wedding, Hamlet is wildly angry and melancholy about his dead father (Shakespeare). Words that are descriptive or modify subjects are arranged to be left unstressed, while most of the nouns are punctuated in the rhyme. The objective and conflict of the speech is set off by its rhythmic structure.
Shakespeare makes it very plain that his poetic form allows the reader to understand a change in character. He uses rhythmic devices to create character, to envision the mood and mindset of the speaker. The rhythm creates a dimension to the text that demands dramatic form, the means of inflection and rhythm imperative to the conflict and plot of the story. Shakespeare also highlights words and themes for the reader to attend; themes and motifs are easy to spot if the rhythm is understood. The text is designed so gracefully that the speaker’s message, mood, objective, and conflict are clear even if the words are misunderstood. With the English language in its conception and all classes attending his plays, Shakespeare needed a way to communicate to a diverse audience (McDonald, Bedford 40). For the contemporary audience, though, the archaic seems fresh, new, and quite intelligent. The rhythm of the speech is the cornerstone of Shakespeare’s active language.
Mamet’s use of iambic form is analogous. Given that the play is written in iambic, the action and speech of Mamet’s plays become very clear. Mamet denotes stressed words in italics while using ellipses, periods, commas, and dashes to denote stress, pauses, beats, and interruptions (Mamet “Someone…” 158). These variations become essential in understanding the mood and concept of the character. Look at this small speech from Glengarry Glen Ross:
Levene: Bullshit. John. Bullshit. April, September 1981. It’s me. It isn’t fucking Moss. Due respect, he’s an order taker, John. He talks, he talks a good game, look at the board, and it’s me, John, it’s me… (Mamet, Glengarry 17)
At the beginning, a trochee appears, then an unstressed syllable, followed by an emphasized iamb. Another trochee starts “April” and then drives forward with iambic at the second syllable of “September.” Systematically, a powerful beat starts the sentences and then they collapse into typical form, illustrating that the character wants to make his point up front, and then elaborate. The first stressed syllable is a theme throughout the speech, defining the character as someone who wants a reaction before giving all the information. This style might be compared to a salesman, a man whose job is to attract a customer into the offer while trying to hide the information underneath the surface. In Mamet’s work, as in Shakespeare’s, rhythm is one of the key methods of creating character and mood.
The key difference to be noted is that Mamet is writing without verse. In fact, Mamet’s natural rhythm suggests that the iambs are not formed in feet at all, but rather in thoughts and phrases. In the speech above, the first three words are a complete thought, and they have a five-syllable form with typical variation. As the speech goes on, words that are unimportant run four or five syllables long. The idea of pentameter fades into the natural rhythm of the speech, and is so blended into the text as to be almost invisible. At first it appears Mamet is nothing more than a copycat, masterfully blending Shakespearean text with contemporary speech.
However, cultural considerations tend to point to Mamet’s language as an evolution in dramatic form more than a rehashed version. Elizabethan England was not concerned with realism, except in small doses; half of the reason for seeing Shakespeare was the epic nature of a drama that could pass over years in a matter of minutes (Wilson and Goldfarb 194). The imagination was essential to understanding the Elizabethan stage. When we reach Glengarry, the nature of drama has changed dramatically. By the 1980s, America had time to fully develop and process Ibsen and Stanislavski’s ideas of realism in the theatre, but split into extremely different sects of belief on the issue (Wilson and Goldfarb 443). In the meantime, practitioners of existential philosophy and absurdism came with a pessimistic view of individual will and control (Wilson and Goldfarb 484). The idea of verse, of formal structure, stands in opposition to all cultural influence of postmodern belief systems. Hence, Mamet’s rhythm has a hidden, loose structure to it. It is a degenerated verse that nonetheless makes its message clear. In his own distinct voice, Mamet is using rhythmic structure and poetic form to create character and mood, and defining the action of the play as it moves forward. His writing is the evolved poetics of the past.
The shared sense of rhythm between both Shakespeare and Mamet sets the stage for the numerous other ties, links, and bonds between the two. The pounding, driving iambic form is altered, inverted, mixed, and sometimes thrown out to create a solid footing for the driving action and plot of the drama, the driving power of the word. From this rhythm, two distinct yet parallel dramas are built that use the same literary techniques and devices to create the work.
Puns and Paradoxes
As rhythm points toward the active nature of Shakespeare and Mamet’s texts, the pun is used to question the nature of linguistic constructs in a cultural hierarchy. The device is found mostly in Shakespearean work, owing to the love of wordplay by the English writers (McDonald, Shakespeare and Arts 138). In fact, the contemporary concept of “polysemy, the multiple senses of a single verbal sign, was…familiar and pleasing…to readers of Elizabethan poetry” (McDonald, Shakespeare and Arts 138). However, the idea of puns has bothered linguistic theorists because it complicates the relationship between the “signifier” and “signified,” or the spoken or written word and the meaning it obtains within context (McDonald, Shakespeare and Arts 140). To explain:
Puns reveal the discrimination of meaning to be a haphazard, approximate, error-prone affair. A pun subverts the one-to-one relation between signifier…and signified…It fractures the sign and disturbs those neat relations which…tie signified and signifier together. (McDonald,Shakespeare and Arts 141)
The pun is a prime example of the “différance” that Derrida discusses in his linguistic theory. It shows that the transfer of speech or writing requires a cultural context; without clues, the reader or audience member may be confused with the meaning of the word. Using puns, the writer “requires the reader or listener to hesitate, to look in two directions at once, enforcing a momentary shift into another context” (McDonald, Shakespeare and Arts 141). The pun is not simply a clever trick on the audience; it is a means for the author or chosen character to define the context of the drama and language of the play.
It is no small coincidence that both Hamlet and Glengarry Glen Ross are constructed around a central pun. Each play defines internal conflict around a pun that consistently reappears throughout the play. The dual function of the pun within Hamlet and Glengarry is to explain the nature of characters’ internal conflict while bringing attention to the power and validity given to perceived truth within the worlds of both plays.
In the case of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark quickly reveals the internal conflict of the show as a whole. In the passage from Act I, Scene ii used in the earlier section, Hamlet points to the difference between “seems” versus “is”; the external appearance of a personality and attitude is not necessarily the full reality of the person’s emotional state (Shakespeare 1.2.76). This subject deals with Hamlet’s relationship with his parents, as his mother marries an uncle so quickly after his father’s death. This pun is extended throughout the play itself. Hamlet has Horatio and his friends swear:
that you at such time seeing me shall,/with arms encumbered thus, or this headshake,/or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase/as ‘Well, we know’ or ‘We could an if we would,’/or ‘If we list to speak,’ or ‘There be, an if they might,’/or such ambiguous giving out, to note/that you know aught of me. (Shakespeare 2.1.174)
Hamlet’s idea to hide under the guise of ambiguity and feigned melancholy is, by itself, an expression of the paradoxical reality he lives in. Compounding this are the vague phrases he warns his friends about; words are doubled in paradox, comparing “list” and “speak,” “could” and “would,” and most telling, “be” and “might” (Shakespeare). The pun digs its roots into Hamlet, and as it grows over the body of the work, creates a reality of puns, a duality of influence.
Hamlet’s master plan for revealing his uncle’s crime is to put on a play:
I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play/Have by the very cunning of the scene/Been struck so to the soul that presently/They have proclaimed their malefactions;/For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak/With most miraculous organ...I’ll observe his looks,/ I’ll tent him to the quick. If a but blench,/I know my course… (Shakespeare 2.2.566)
Again, the essence of action is dual: rather than directly accuse and prosecute, he circumvents reality because he no longer trusts it. Instead, he hopes to perform a play (in and of itself a paradox) and judge his uncle through his “soul” and “looks” (Shakespeare). The paradox is duplicated through action and speech, and then is replicated in multiple puns and understandings. By the end of the play, reality and truth have mixed, collapsed, and finally merged as Hamlet changes the rules of his game. His paradox of reality is found in his speech, his methods, and his logic. The essence of reality is the quest of the play; whether or not the “is” is evident or rational, it is true (Shakespeare).
The logic of the pun is clearly understood in Hamlet. Linguistically, “doubling is a principal characteristic of the language of Hamlet” (Kermode,Shakespeare’s Language 102). The audience ignores the intertwining of words, of ideas because it seems typical and ordinary (Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language 106). The duality of words give Hamlet power: once his paradox of “seems” and “is” takes hold of the reality of the play, the other characters and the audience itself have no real concern with other events except for how he affects them or how they affect him (Shakespeare 1.2). Hamlet turns into a grotesque Midas figure, where anything he touches, metaphorically, falls under his control. The audience cannot judge Hamlet’s actions by any moral code for the simple fact that they never quite know what Hamlet is doing to whom and why. Shakespeare has used the pun to create a dual reality, and in doing so always stays a few steps ahead of the audience up to the closing moments of the drama. More importantly, he has created a character that is able to define truth on his own terms.
Glengarry Glen Ross uses the pun in the same way. In the second scene of the play, Moss and Aaronow discuss the idea of stealing the leads:
Aaronow: Yes. I mean are you actually talking about this, or are we just…
Moss: No, we’re just…
Aaronow: We’re just “talking” about it.
Moss: We’re just speaking about it. (Pause.) As an idea.
Aaronow: As an idea.
Aaronow: We’re not actually talking about it.
Moss: No. (Mamet, Glengarry 39)
This exchange defines the terms of language between Mamet’s characters: “just ‘speaking’ about a subject keeps it in the comfortable realm of abstract ‘idea’; actually ‘talking’ about a subject crystallizes it as an action” (Worster 66). This construct is not defined specifically in “speaking” and “talking” (Mamet) throughout the play, but the “distinction between ineffective talk and effective talk is” (Worster 66).
What is particularly interesting is how this serves as a power construct. By differentiating language as speech and as action, Moss has redefined the terms of conversation (Worster 66). The pun becomes a power play for the character using it:
This type of utterance is...a statement that enacts as it is uttered. ‘I’m making it concrete’ is the equivalent of ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’ in that reality changes as the words are spoken.…Such recognition depends on the authority of the speaker to make such statements…valid. (Worster 66)
In Glengarry, characters gain power through the use of language, particularly in redefining its terms; the only catch is that the person who listens must recognize their power (Worster 66). Again, the pun is used as a form of control. The mechanics are altered, due to both cultural and structural differences between the two works. Whereas Hamlet invests its control into the central figure of Hamlet, power is channeled through each of the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross; each character’s influence ebbs and flows as the play moves forward. Even so, the effect is the same: power is gained by redefining truth, by changing the rules of reality. In both plays, truth is defined by those in power, and reality becomes a conduit for their definitions to take hold. This relativity of language and speech builds the system of movement for power. The source of such power, though, can only be found in another device.
The soliloquy is a seemingly useless item. It speaks to the audience directly, hoping to keep their attention for the entire length of the speech; then the play continues as if nothing had happened. The more modern monologue has the same function in contemporary theatre; only now the audience is bored even further because the character speaks to another character rather than the paying customer. Just what do Hamlet’s incredibly long oratories accomplish within the play? What do Glengarry’s rambling war stories have to do with the final outcome? The answer lies much deeper than first glance.
In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark has some twenty-one speeches longer than ten lines, at least five of them in prose (Shakespeare). Several express anger at his parents’ hasty marriage, one instructs performers on their duties, and two particular cases discuss death internally and externally (Shakespeare). Somehow, the crux of Hamlet’s argument in his soliloquies is not represented neatly on the surface. The famed “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet seems a deliberation of death over life. Hamlet asks:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/and, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep – /No more, and by a sleep we say to end/the heartache and the thousand natural shocks/that flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation/devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep/to sleep, perchance to dream. (Shakespeare 3.1.59)
At first glance, the reader recognizes the suicidal bent of the speech and latches onto it. Yet as the speech moves forward, the duality of the pun begins to consume the subject of the speech. Hamlet asks “to be, or not to be,” which places life in the context of existence; there is a prime différance formed between the notion of ‘living’ and ‘being’ (Shakespeare). This is only the first of many intriguing puns and word choices: “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” “’tis a consummation/devoutly to be wished,” “To die, to sleep/to sleep, perchance to dream” (Shakespeare). The wordplay of the speech reveals that Hamlet is talking in circles, in paradoxical English.
In terms of plot, the confusing, twisting speech is extremely effective. Claudius and Polonius listen in to find the cause of his melancholy. Hamlet, it would seem, knows they are present and hopes to confuse their attempts through such affected wordplay. He succeeds, keeping his enemies distanced from his true cause as long as possible. Shakespeare goes one step further, though, keeping the audience in the dark as well; anyone hoping to understand Hamlet’s true feelings is thwarted by a code of puns, paradoxes, and deceit. Paradox is found throughout the soliloquy because it allows Hamlet the opportunity to gain as much control as possible. The soliloquy stalls action because the power of the language is invested in one figure (Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language 102). In order for language to have an active impact, it has to be transferred between speakers or at least directed toward another object. The soliloquy forces action within the character who is speaking. Shakespeare uses singular speech as a base for transferring power to Hamlet’s character and validity to Hamlet’s cause. Compounded with the duality presented in wordplay, soliloquies provide time for Hamlet to control what other characters and the audience believes he is thinking and doing.
In Glengarry Glen Ross, the monologue replaces the soliloquy as a major source of power for the salesmen. Roma’s extended monologue from Act 1, Scene 3 begins with the phrase “all train compartments smell vaguely of shit” (Mamet, Glengarry 49). From that cryptic start, Roma begins to weave an intricate rant that touches on a variety of topics: “we’re all queer,” the value of “a dump made you feel you’d just slept for twelve hours,” and why men should “do those things which seem correct to [them] today” (Mamet, Glengarry 49). Just as Hamlet rambles on about life and death in vague, almost nonsensical terms, Roma is talking to Lingk, a potential buyer, about life in an incredibly cryptic manner (Mamet, Glengarry). In fact, Roma is going so far as to integrate the use of the pun into his speech:
Within this…monologue, the profusion of the verbs to act and to do, in combination with the frequent repetition of the words today or each day, has the cumulative effect of a demand: ‘Act today.’ (Worster 68)
By the end of the speech, Roma has settled his message into Lingk’s unconscious; using clever wordplay, he has disguised his trade while making the pitch to his customer. Only at the last second does Roma mention real estate (Mamet, Glengarry). The scene ends, the audience realizing they have been conned just like Lingk. The sales pitch remains invisible; it is the mechanism and source of power, but only if we are unable to see its full workings.
The use of the monologue provides an incredible source of power for Mamet’s salesmen. Within Glengarry Glen Ross, the purpose of speech “is to persuade, to sell, and the practical business maxim, ‘Always Be Closing,’ hovers over the play like a perverted golden rule” (Worster 67). The salesmen are interested in one thing: selling real estate. The need to make a sale drives them to speak in a distinct manner, creating an “[assertion of] verbal authority” that may or may not be warranted (Worster 64). According to Worster:
In the making of a request, the hearer has power over the speaker — the speaker makes the request, and the hearer has the ability to agree or refuse…This distinction is important because, although the salesmen are obviously in the position to make requests, they always speak as though they are in the position to give orders. (Worster 67)
The pattern of authority created within the monologues of Glengarry moves power at a more efficient rate than Hamlet’s soliloquies. Rather than each individual soliloquy having its own impact on a character or scene, the monologues in Glengarry seduce, entrap, and prompt action from the person listening. The construct of language helps expedite this process; the monologues are directed toward a single individual, not the whole play. Still, the pattern is the same, and the use of the monologue gives both a measly prince and several silver tongues the opportunity to manipulate men in any fashion they desire. Whether for money or revenge, the use of the soliloquy within both plays provides a wealth of power to those that use it.
Devices and Plot
Having looked at the forms of language within both Hamlet and Glengarry Glen Ross, the construct of linguistic authority within each text follows the same pattern. The active rhythm of iambic form drives each play forward as a beat, whereas different solos and riffs are played off of the typical rhythm to identify the mood and personality of each character. As the rhythm moves the play forward, the paradoxical wordplay of Hamlet and Glengarry’s salesmen define the terms of reality with their own sense of authority. The soliloquy, then, provides each character with the opportunity to gain power over the others; it is the soil in which the roots of the pun will grow.
The plants formed from this soil and environment look quite different from each other. Earlier, I noted the possible reading of Glengarry as Mamet’s creation of an anti-Hamlet. I want to point out the importance of the term ‘anti-Hamlet.’ I chose this prefix accordingly because Mamet is not creating a ‘non,’ or a work that has no relation to its antecedent. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, a single character affects the lives of the others around him; Mamet’s comedy, on the other hand, focuses on six different real estate salesmen who are each looking for their own version of the American Dream. Mamet’s drama is “a bastard play,” structured around the reconstruction of Hamlet’s plot to suit the contemporary audience (Price 3). In terms of comparing the two authors, a gap forms in linking the structure of the two plays, one that undermines the principles of this study. A deeper look reveals where each play meets.
In Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet, Claudius brings in a messenger named Voltemand to inform him of the status of the kingdom in foreign affairs (Shakespeare). Voltemand’s response is particularly concerned with Fortinbras and Norway, but produces this reference to Poland:
Voltemand: …Gives him three-score thousand crowns in annual fee
And his commission to employ those soldiers,
So levied as before, against the Polack,
With an entreaty, herein further shown… (Shakespeare 2.2.77–81)
Fortinbras has apparently agreed to take arms against Poland rather than Denmark, a move that spares the kingdom a costly war with such a new monarchy (Shakespeare). Moving ahead, Glengarry Glen Ross produces this small diatribe between Moss and Aaronow about the difficulty of selling real estate to some people:
Moss: Polacks and deadbeats.
Moss: Deadbeats all.
Aaronow: …they hold on to their money…
Moss: All of ‘em. They, hey: it happens to us all. (Mamet 28)
There is a mutual dislike for the ‘Polacks’ in both plays; each is a signal of a threat to the culture surrounding each play. For Hamlet’s Denmark, Poland is a potential threat to the unstable kingdom (Shakespeare); for the salesmen in Glengarry, the Polack is a threat to their sales, their livelihood (Mamet, Glengarry).
Granted, this shared image is limited in perspective and has little bearing on either play, but it does suggest that shared devices (motifs, figures, andsymbols) express a vision of cultural impact. The symbol in particular provides a wealth of information regarding the world of the play and the culture surrounding it (McDonald, Shakespeare and Arts 86). For Mamet and Shakespeare, though, the symbol serves another function: that of “The MacGuffin…[Alfred] Hitchcock’s term for ‘that which the hero wants’” (Mamet, Three Uses 29). Mamet explains further:
[Hitchcock] understood that the dramatic goal is generic…The less specific the qualities of the MacGuffin are, the more interested the audience will be. Why? Because a loose abstraction allows audience members to project their own desires onto an essentially featureless goal. (Mamet,Three Uses 29)
Shakespeare and Mamet understand the importance of the MacGuffin; of a goal, a force that drives the action of characters within the play (Mamet Three Uses). Their choice of devices create dualities of their own, relaying signals of the culture indigenous to the work (McDonald, Shakespeare and Arts 86) while driving the characters toward a central goal, keeping conflict and drama alive (Mamet, Three Uses 31).
Two such devices stand out above the rest. The figure of Hamlet’s ghost haunts the presence of Shakespeare’s play. Although the power and action may be vested in the younger Hamlet, the older Hamlet haunts his son and forces him to move forward. His edict may be “adieu, adieu...remember me,” but King Hamlet’s figure compels his son to create the paradoxical reality that controls young Hamlet’s actions (Shakespeare 1.5.91). This external power of the king controlling the son, of the regal order upheld, follows the monarchy of Shakespeare’s culture. Hamlet was written near the end of Elizabeth’s reign and reflected the anxiety of English culture as a new monarch was to be crowned (McDonald, Bedford 87). The image of Old Hamlet’s ghost exemplifies the centering of power in the monarchy. The culture of royalty and the monarchy directly influences the world of Hamlet and the subtext that dominates the play.
In Glengarry Glen Ross, the ghost is replaced by the Cadillac, a lingering specter that drives and lingers over the heads of all the salesmen. In Act 1, Scene 2 of Glengarry Glen Ross, Moss complains about how
the pressure’s just too great. You’re ab…you’re absolu…they’re too important. All of them. You go in the door. I…’I got to close this fucker, or I don’t eat lunch,’ ‘or I don’t win the Cadillac…’ We fuckin’ work too hard. (Mamet, Glengarry 30)
After Levene closes his deal with the Nyborgs in Act 2, he commands Williamson to “put [him] on the Cadillac board” (Mamet, Glengarry 63). Most memorable is Roma’s diatribe after Williamson fudges the deal with Lingk:
You stupid fucking cunt. You, Williamson…I’m talking to you, shithead…you just cost me six thousand dollars. (Pause.) Six thousand dollars. And one Cadillac. That’s right. What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it, asshole. (Mamet, Glengarry 95)
The Cadillac becomes a chief concern for each salesman. If a sale is made, the salesmen laud it; if sales are bad, it is a point of anger and frustration. The Cadillac is a major force driving the actions of the salesmen in Glengarry.
Culturally, the Cadillac is a by-product of the postmodern materialism behind Mamet’s culture. The individual seems to control his own destiny through democratic means; secretly, the drive for wealth haunts their actions. In the case of Glengarry, the object of each man is to sell, and this institution of wealth is exemplified in the figure of the Cadillac. The influence of the Cadillac on the actions of the salesmen:
resides in the promise that the characters will come one step closer to transforming their inner narratives of achievement into actuality; as a result of their readiness to believe in the viability of myth, though, the characters are caught in a matrix of self-perpetuating deceptions. (Geis 62)
The Cadillac is a direct influence on the deception of others, on the actions taken by characters in Glengarry Glen Ross. The control over power is manifested in a central authority, both nonspecific within the context of the play and, symbolically indicative of the culture of the play’s environment.
Understanding this, the case against cultural comparison of these two authors falls short. Culture has evolved and changed dramatically, but power is still, after four hundred years, defined through a central institution. Within these dramas, authority must be channeled through a central institution of some form, such that the cultural and structural separation between both plays is bridged by careful wordplay and linguistic technique. Superficially, Hamlet and Glengarry Glen Ross are polar opposites. After careful examination of the text of each play and the cultural influences that shape them, these two plays (and their authors) are inexorably linked.
Some lingering doubts on the topic of this thesis still remain. A significant issue is how the split between the author and the actor affects the nature of cultural criticism. As explained earlier, the text is the cornerstone of comparison between Shakespeare and Mamet. The recognition of linguistic connections has been defined in terms of author, not in terms of the performer. For actors of either author’s drama, their job is to give life to the text, not to deconstruct it. This thesis, however, seems to do just that, deconstructing the author to find the root of his language, his reason. It is the critic’s mission to decipher the patterns and constructs working within literature and drama. The practitioner of theatre must know where to draw the line between analysis and art. For David Mamet:
The tradition of oral interpretation, text interpretation, etc., may be all well and good for those addicted to the pleasures of the English Department, but these jolly disciplines have nothing whatever to do with the interchange between actor and audience. The audience perceives only what the actor wants to do to the other actor. If the speaker wants to do nothing to or about the other actor but wants only to interpret the text, the audience loses interest in the play. (Mamet, True and False 56)
This could mean that all of this work is for naught, that another critic has thrown his hat into the ring to get some notoriety.
The aim of this study is not to say Shakespeare and Mamet are the same author. All this quote does is support my aim: to profile the interconnected constructions of two different authors in two different cultures. The histories and cultures surrounding Hamlet and Glengarry Glen Ross have been dealt with throughout the thesis; these inclusions only serve to point the presence of a deep bond that transcends the different values of each author’s time. The intent of examining text and finding deeper meaning is to show the cunning of both Mamet and Shakespeare, to remember the past by reevaluating the present. Mamet and Shakespeare do not share the same values, the same cultural idiom; their histories and struggles are not constantly aligned. What each does share, however, is a passion and understanding of the theatre unrivaled by any of their time. This study stands apart from the typical arm of English studies, approaching the text as action; the drama and conflict of language cannot be separated.
More pressing is the relevance of such a study. With all of this time and effort, what impact does it have? For one, this study creates a new critical standard, using new historicism to underscore pure textual analysis, while applying the logic of Derrida to examine a shared system of power between authors. The borrowing from two opposed sources advances the impact of dramatic criticism to a new level.
This level is a new dimension of criticism: the comparative study of authors through cultural periods. Comparative studies are usually conducted within the range of a single author or a single period of writing. This study, however, compares the work of two authors with four hundred years of literature separating them. The evolution of dramatic language shows that even with such history and culture to suggest otherwise, Mamet and Shakespeare are connected in framing their language. This critical model can be used to examine other authors and the works between them. The model is extremely flexible, concerned with understanding the method and influence behind an author’s poetics instead of the meaning of the text.
This piece creates a new legacy for both Mamet and Shakespeare in drama. The myth of Shakespeare as a god of literature must be struck down. To judge Shakespeare only on his words ignores much of his creativity. True, he is a master craftsman of words, but his ability to use those words to create an active, moving plot and his acute awareness of the culture he wrote about and for shows Shakespeare as a dramatist. By comparing Shakespeare to a contemporary figure, this study shows that Shakespeare is relevant to all cultures, both in the pleasure of his works and the challenge of staging them onstage. The comparison between these two authors shows that literature, specifically dramatic literature, is always evolving, always alive. This thesis upholds the relevance of literature, the theatre, and how both arts evolve with the passing of time.
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